Shade-grown Coffee


(This 1044th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 27, 2011.)


At the outset let me make several things clear: I am not a shill for a coffee wholesaler. I am in fact not even a regular coffee drinker. (When I do drink it, I mix in so much cream and sugar that it looks like and tastes like mud.)


I am, however, a shill for birds. And today we have many bird species in serious trouble, their populations declining to levels that make recovery questionable. An example will suggest what I am talking about. The past several years many readers have written to ask what has happened to the wood thrushes that used to inhabit nearby woodlots from which they caroled their lovely songs mornings and evenings. Those welcome songsters are far less common today. So too are brown thrashers, field and vesper sparrows, towhees and many other species.


There are, of course, many causes for this. But one of the significant causes has been identified as the way coffee plantations are being managed. Forests are being cleared in order to grow coffee trees in direct sunlight instead of in the shade of the original forest canopy.


I first learned of the problem this created when I read what Bridget Stutchbury of nearby York University in Toronto had to say about this topic:


"Shade‑coffee farms are teeming with resident birds that are joined by migrants from the north from September through March. The birds are attracted not to the coffee itself but rather to the food that the shade trees provide. Most insect eaters feed in the canopy rather than on the coffee plants because few insects can stomach coffee leaves, which are tough and full of chemicals. Coffee can be a bird's best friend, but in the past few decades modern farming has swept the coffee industry in Latin America and has also swept away some of the last forest refuges for birds. In the swirling steam that rises from your coffee cup could be the ghosts of warblers flitting among the orchids, orioles sipping nectar from spectacular bouquets in the treetops, and thrushes flipping up leaves on the forest floor."


Stutchbury quoted other ornithological researchers including Russell Greenberg of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center who found the open sun coffee plantations virtually barren of bird life while the shade-grown farms supported 46 migratory species including 22 warblers.


The case for shade-grown coffee is clear. Why then the problem? Stutchbury again: "Sun coffee can be planted at over triple the density of shade‑coffee plants, resulting in a 30 percent increase in coffee production. Robusta grows at lower elevations, where temperatures are warmer, produces more fruits and hence more beans, and contains twice as much caffeine as arabica. The downside for coffee drinkers is that robusta is rather bitter, so it is used mainly for instant coffee and mass‑produced supermarket coffee."


Those aspects bring down the cost of raising sun coffee, but there is a cost downside for sun coffee as well. It rapidly degrades the land and requires heavy doses of fertilizers herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.


What makes the sun coffee available in stores today cheaper than shade-grown alternatives is the fact that too few people buy the shade-grown varieties, which means that they lack the advantage of large scale production.


Even worse, today it is rare for the public even to have the alternative of buying shade-grown coffee. Stores simply don't carry it; neither do those supposedly upscale coffee shops like Starbucks.


Some time ago I was preparing a column to salute my colleague, Chris Hollister, for getting a university coffee shop to carry shade-grown coffee. Unfortunately, the shop was closed before I could finish the column.


But now the topic has risen again. Some regional coffee-and-bird lovers led by Laura Kammermeier are seeking to get Wegmans stores to offer shade-grown coffee distributed by a Boston firm, Birds and Beans Coffee.


Migratory birds, those Stutchbury calls "modern-day canaries in the coal mine," need our help and we should provide it. We can tell Wegmans store managers that this is a serious concern and then we can put our money behind that concern: we can purchase better shade-grown coffee for a premium price. Only that way will those migrants be sheltered and the price eventually come down.-- Gerry Rising